Patricia Castanha: Top ten tips for effective stewardship

Earlier this year, we had the privilege of globally renowned fundraising expert, Patricia Castanha, presenting our Creative Partnerships Australia Masterclasses on ‘Stewardship: Creating Relationships for Life’.

These nationwide masterclasses focused on the importance of building and developing productive relationships for successful fundraising. Following on from her Masterclass, Patricia shares with us her ‘Top ten tips for effective stewardship’.


Let’s start by reminding ourselves what stewardship means and why it’s so important (the following is based on the definition of the Association of Donor Relations Professionals in the USA):

The effort of any non-profit organisation which seeks and receives philanthropic support to ensure donors experience high-quality interactions that foster long-term engagement and investment.

So what is the power of good stewardship?  What is the impact?  Your aim is to involve your donors more deeply in your organisation, ensure they understand your vision and mission, enable them to buy into your case for support and develop loyalty to your organisation.  But, crucially, it’s also a two-way street:  solidifying these relationships with your donors will enable you to understand their motivations, be fully aware of their passions, their networks, the sources of their wealth, developments in their business, etc.  All this intelligence provides you with the tools to cultivate them successfully for enhanced gifts and, just as importantly, make them proactive advocates for your cause.

You will already be seeing the description of the virtuous cycle that will become the basis for effective stewardship.

And you will also be noticing that stewardship and cultivation are very similar, possibly indistinguishable, processes.

To understand how to steward your supporters, you need to understand why they give.  Do they have a passion for an art form?  Are they alums of your organisation?  Have they developed a belief in a particular cause – or a conviction or a hope they can make a difference in some way?  Where will their donor dollar offer the most value for money?  Are they giving because they have been asked by someone specific, whom they respect or want to impress?  Many of the strongest triggers are a combination of motivators, so there are as many reasons to give as there are readers of this piece!

In the masterclasses, we looked at applying “Moves Management” techniques to donor identification, cultivation and stewardship.  “Moves” are the actions you take to establish relationships and renew gifts – you are probably doing this already, even if you didn’t know it has a name!

Typically, there are five stages:

  1. Identify and plan – seek opportunities to be strategic, through prospect research, introductions from board members/volunteers, or because someone has given the first gift. Get ready across the organisation, at every level, to move to the next step;
  2. Qualify – in other words, research. Factor what their affinity is with your organisation and their capacity to support you.  Bear in mind the outcome may be more – or less – than they give to others.  Create opportunities to move supporters to the next level;
  3. Cultivate – no additional explanation needed!
  4. Solicit – plan when, how and who will ask, for what;
  5. Stewardship – thank them for their support, recognise them and report to them, ensure they know the impact of their gift. Then steward them until it is time for the next solicitation.

Effective stewardship turns first-time supporters into loyal recurring donors, so make sure stewardship isn’t an afterthought.  What does this mean for you?  First and foremost, you need to address the interests and concerns of your supporters.  Then develop a clear and cohesive ladder of giving progression, with a tiered offer and integrated and creative incentives to give (more).  BUT always avoid a standard approach – be as personal and bespoke as you can in the way you relate to your donors, bearing in mind the combined factors of the level of their support, your aims to enhance that and the resources at your organisation’s disposal.

Think about making effective and productive stewardship the norm.  Think about how you can involve (higher level) supporters in the work of the organisation, if that’s appropriate and helpful.  Internally, think also about fashioning structures to steward creatively, brainstorm strategies that encourage donors to take the next strep and get board members and senior staff involved in fundraising and stewardship.  All of this will contribute to cementing the process into the organisation and ensure your stewardship strategy isn’t compromised by staff and/or board turnover.

And, whilst you’re busy doing all of the above, don’t forget about the mechanics of gift tracking and administration!

Top ten tips:

One of the keys to keeping donors engaged is to ensure that in all communication with them – particularly when “making the ask” – your organisation’s message remains clear.  Get straight to the point, don’t use jargon and you shouldn’t go wrong.

Creating a relationship
Each and every donor is precious, meaning that you need to do all you can to keep them engaged.  Help them to connect with your organisation from the outset; don’t allow them to see their gift as a one-off transaction, but rather as the beginning of a relationship. Create opportunities where they are able to really feel involved and connected to the work you do.

Making it personal
Make sure donors are able to see the difference their contribution makes and know they are appreciated.  Show them they are more to you than a bank account, and that you appreciate them both as individuals and as a collective.  You know that’s happening when they talk about “us” and “what we can do”, rather than “me and you”.

Acquiring the right donors
While every donation is important, it is also vital to take a look at who you are targeting in your fundraising activities.  Try to make sure that you are focussing on those who are most likely to make a long term commitment – at whatever level.  You can do this not only by making an effort in the first place to understand what really motivates people to donate to your organisation but, also, by ensuring that you have the right people in place to implement your fundraising strategy.  

Addressing legitimate concerns about governance and accountability
Governance is noted by some as an important aspect of the donor-beneficiary link (specifically in the case of major donors who are also board members, the essence of their involvement is often related to governance).  Certain concerns about the size of the charity, quality of leadership, levels of expenditure on aspects of administration, can all influence a decision to support.

The desire for influence and direction is stronger when major gifts are awarded, particularly for capital projects. Where there has been a really major gift to create a new venture, the donor may require involvement from the start.  For those with family businesses, or family foundations, influence on early project design or management can also be seen as safeguarding the family reputation.

Making it enjoyable
The pleasure which comes from relationships which arise out of philanthropy – with other donors, with staff and trustees, with artists and, in some cases, with the ultimate beneficiaries – is a major motivator which donors may only discover once they’re embarked on the journey with you.  So provide opportunities for making giving fun for them, whilst reinforcing the ways in which people feel good about giving because they see the difference that their money is making.

Asking for feedback
Feedback is invaluable to your organisation.  Don’t be afraid of asking your donors for fundraising ideas or about which campaigns they connected with most – after all, they are vital to the continuation of your work, so the more information you get from them the better.  And everyone likes to tell you their opinions!  This will show them that their perspective is important to you and should make them more likely to engage with your future activities.

Enabling your colleagues and board members to participate in fundraising
There may only be one or two of you in the fundraising department, so think about how you can bring others into the “team” to help you – and further engage donors.  Show them what they can do to support stewardship, whether that’s helping you host an event, writing a thank you letter or making a call, thinking about other networks to introduce to your organisation, advising on prospects’ and donors’ capacity and interests…

Ensure the board is thinking about fundraising
There are two strands to this topic:  firstly board giving and secondly board members’ perception that fundraising is a communal responsibility, not just yours.

So, do all board members give to your organisation?  This is less about how much they give and more about being able to state truthfully and openly that there is “full participation” from the board.  Amounts do not need to be disclosed but it should be a matter of pride and good governance that all give something.

Added to that, is fundraising a standing agenda item at meetings – and near the top of the agenda, for example just after finance – and hence an ongoing, high priority process for board members?  Cultivate at least one board member who you can meet regularly, for brainstorming and support and who will be the advocate for fundraising good practice lobbying the rest of the group.  And they can attend fundraising training if they are willing and interested in developing practical skills (as several board members did in the recent stewardship masterclasses – it was so useful to have their viewpoint in the room).

And finally, this is simple:  examine your cultivation strategy

Cultivation and stewardship are interchangeable – after all, stewardship is in many cases cultivation for the next gift.  So look at what works best in your cultivation plan and apply that to your stewardship strategy – and vice versa.

Remember what we said at the start:  the aim is always to offer donors a high-quality experience that fosters on-going engagement, and therefore long-term investment, with your organisation.


About Patricia Castanha

Patricia Castanha (UK) is a globally renowned fundraising management expert with a wealth of experience in the arts and heritage sectors. Her expertise in revenue and capital fundraising offers a wide range of skills and understanding to clients including English National Ballet, Tate, the Royal Academy of Arts, Lambeth Palace Library, Leeds International Piano Competition, Chelsea Physic Garden and Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Patricia led the £36 million capital campaign for the Renewal of St Martin-in-the-Fields and is currently working with City & Guilds of London Art School, as well as with the London Symphony Orchestra on London’s proposed new Centre for Music. In a voluntary capacity, she chairs National Youth Ballet and was a member of the National Theatre‘s Trusts Working Group during the recent £80 million capital fundraising campaign.